Mark Noll on the Possibilities of Providential History

Probably no Christian historian has been as influential as Mark Noll, whose recent retirement from the University of Notre Dame is the occasion for a major research conference later this spring. At the end of ch. 4 in Why Study History?, John Fea quotes Noll’s statement that providential history only made sense to “people who already shared your very specific religious position. If someone said the Reformation was God’s way of bringing about a reform in the church, I knew that person wasn’t a Catholic.” Perhaps America’s most famous evangelical historian, Noll couldn’t point to good examples of providential history.

Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the MindIn his own award-winning book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (which Fea relies on for his discussion of Incarnation in ch. 5), Noll says that while “the doctrine of providence is an indispensable dogma of orthodox Christianity… problems abound when believers put providence in play for history writing. Most obvious is the problem caused when believers rely, not just on the fact of God’s universal rule, but on their own ability to understand the detailed means by which God rules the world” (pp. 85, 86).

But Noll did write the foreword for Steve Keillor’s attempt at serious providential history, concluding “…I am not sure he has entirely convinced me. But I know that he has made me think, and think hard.” And as Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind continues, Noll suggests that there might actually be room for history shaped by special revelation.

Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An IntroductionFor example, he cites the pioneering work done by the late Ogbu Kalu, who “challenged the ordinary procedures of Western historiography with an appeal to recognize that much of the dynamic history of Christianity is now being enacted in cultures where Enlightenment notions of the possible never took root.” Writing about African Pentecostals who believe in miraculous healing and speaking in tongues, “Kalu suggests that a history of Christianity that is faithful to the ordinary experiences of believers in the Two-Thirds World must somehow combine the sort of natural analysis well honed in Western historiography with a species of supernatural analysis shaped by the day-to-day realities of Christianity in the developing world” (p. 92).

Such histories, decided Noll, “are most persuasive for audiences that share the same theological convictions as the authors of these histories.” By the same token, Fea “can imagine that a form of providential history might be useful in helping a religious congregation or some other community of Christians to make sense of the way that God has led them through the days, months, and years” (Why Study History?, pp. 82-83).

To the extent that either Fea or Noll is prepared to leave room for such history, they emphasize humility. Noll praises scholars like Keillor for attempting providential history of this country in a way that “is self-conscious, sophisticated, or qualified by a willingness to engage research and interpretation from those of other points of view…” (p. 94). Fea allows for the possibility of providential history within the church, but only so long as it is “written with a sense of humility and a commitment to the mystery of God. It must be seasoned with words like ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘might.'”

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2 thoughts on “Mark Noll on the Possibilities of Providential History

  1. While providential history might not be right for scholarly debates, it should not be ignored. Ogbu Kalu and Steve Keillor both bring up some very good points, and I think we should spend time to ponder them. Questions like if I were a Christian in a different culture a different time, would I view this as God’s Providence, or how do I write I good narration of events using providential history, are good questions to ask and in the end will make us better writers and more interesting historians.

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    • Thanks, Aidan. I’d be especially interested to hear from those of you who have taken coursework on non-Western or pre-modern history here: is “thinking historically” as we’ve been talking about it too closely tied to a modern, Western view of reality (i.e., one rooted in the Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment)?

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